is a truth universally acknowledged, as Jane Austen might say,
that all television was “live” during the glorious Golden Age
of Television and that somewhere along about the end of the
1950s, that method of delivery died out.
But just because a truth is
universally acknowledged doesn’t mean it’s true.
Fact is, pre-recording has been with us since the dawn
of commercial television, and I don’t have to tell you that
live TV is still very much with us in the form of news shows,
sporting events, awards programs, and many of the ever-ubiquitous
the history of live vs. pre-recorded TV shows isn’t easy, particularly
since the technology has changed so much.
Some shows have used a combination of methods, so it’s
often hard to say that The Jack Benny Program, for instance,
was either live or pre-recorded.
help you sort it all out, here's a handy dandy guide to the
various transmission methods that were prevalent in the 1950s.
of the earliest shows on TV – The Lone Ranger, Amos and Andy,
and The Adventures of Superman, for instance – were filmed
in advance, using methods that were then prevalent in the movie
industry. Scenes were
shot out-of-order in whatever sequence made sense according
to the budget. In the post-production phase, a film editor
would put all the scenes together in the proper sequence so
they could be aired on television.
method didn’t work too well for a show that depended on a live
audience, because they wouldn’t be able to follow a story that
was presented out of sequence. That’s why the three-camera technique was developed, where three
cameras would shoot simultaneously from different angles, giving
the film editor enough “coverage” to intersperse close-ups with
long and medium shots. The
show could be presented like a stage play to the studio audience.
three-camera method was used on I Love Lucy, but contrary
to popular belief, was not developed by that show’s cinematographer
Karl Freund. It was
actually worked out in the late 1940s by producer Jerry Fairbanks
with his cameraman and film editor.
proved popular with entertainers based in Hollywood (like Lucy
and Desi) who didn’t want to have to travel to New York, where
virtually all shows originated in the early 1950s.
It was also important for syndicated shows, which by
their very nature, were scheduled at a different time on each
live broadcast was, of course, the most basic method of disseminating
a television broadcast. It required nothing more than putting actors
in front of a camera and transmitting their images to viewers’
TV sets. Post-production was non-existent because there
was no film to edit. The
lack of post-production made live cheaper than film, which was
important in the days when budgets were low because the bulk
of advertising dollars hadn’t yet migrated from radio to TV.
TV required careful planning, because there was no opportunity
for re-takes. If an actor flubbed a line, it went out over
the airwaves for all to see.
Not surprisingly, stage actors tended to thrive in this
environment, while movie actors often found it challenging.
problems quickly became evident with live TV.
The first was that, in 1950, it wasn’t possible to transmit
a TV program from one coast to another.
There just wasn’t any way to send a signal that far.
Stations in the east and midwest were connected by coaxial
cable, similar to the lines we’re all familiar with that are
used today for both cable TV and broadband internet service.
a cable line was built connecting both coasts in 1951, simultaneous
broadcasting could occur. Los Angeles-based entertainers were happy because
they could now do their shows live from Hollywood. And a show airing live in New York could be
seen at the same moment all across the country.
other problem was that of differing time zones.
When a show was airing at 8:00 in the east, it was only
5:00 in the west. As popular as You Bet Your Life was,
few Californians would be able to watch it while still at work
or commuting home. To
solve the problem, the networks came up with the kinescope,
where a live show could be filmed and shown later.
live TV shows were really only live for the eastern and central
time zones. To enable a show to air at the appropriate time in other time zones,
it was necessary to invent some kind of process for capturing
live television. Due
to the limited technology of the day, the best the networks
could come up with was the kinescope.
put, the kinescope process involved placing a movie camera in
front of a TV set and filming the live broadcast.
The film could then be developed and shown later.
first, kinescopes were made in New York, and the film was shipped
to the west coast and aired a week or two after the original
broadcast. Then, after
the installation of the coast-to-coast coaxial cable, kinescopes
of live shows originating in New York could be filmed on the
west coast and aired three hours later in the proper time slot.
Though the technology has changed, this basic approach
is still in use today for shows like Saturday Night Live
and American Idol.
quality of kinescopes was much inferior to the original live
broadcasts, and viewers, critics, and stars complained about
them. Writer Hal Kantor
observed, "Watching a kinescope was like looking at a bowl
of gray pea soup. Here and there you could barely make out the
important for today’s viewers to remember that live TV looked
a lot better than you might think from viewing the old kinescopes.
It should also be noted that most live broadcasts from
the early 1950s have been lost forever.
If it weren’t for kinescopes, even the relatively small
number that remain would be gone.
mediocre quality of kinescopes led the networks and other corporations
to commit considerable resources to coming up with something
better. That something
turned out to be videotape. By 1956, engineers had developed and perfected a method of capturing
both audio and video on magnetic tape. Just as audio tape had been used to pre-record radio programs, TV
shows could now be preserved on videotape.
It was no longer necessary to quickly develop and print
a kinescope film for airing a few hours later.
A videotape could merely be rewound and played back immediately. The savings in both time and cost were substantial.
And as The New York Times noted at the time, “Tape
recordings and ‘live’ broadcasts will be so nearly the same
in quality that a viewer would be hard put to tell the difference.”
there you have it. Everything you need to know about the outmoded
technologies of a bygone era. Make sure you study up, 'cause
there'll be a quiz later.